I live in the East End. Most of my neighbours are Jewish, although, as far as I know, I am one of only two Jews who live in my street.
The others not so much live as reside in the Novo Sephardi Cemetery behind our house (in the grounds of Queen Mary, University of London) and in the nearby Ashkenazi Cemetery (which opened in 1697), the south east corner of which touches the north western edge of the Novo (1733).
From upstairs we overlook both burial grounds. When it snows around here it settles first on the flat Sephardi gravestones whose frosted stone emerges through the grass beyond my six-year-old daughter’s bedroom window like the white spaces of an ancient chess board.
The graves are occasionally visited by Chasidim, often to mark the yarzheit of distinguished Jews such as Aaron Hart (1670-1756) and David Schiff (died 1791), the first and second Chief Rabbis of England. Sometimes Chasidic visitors attempt to gain access to the graves from my street, from which we think there has been no entrance to the cemetery for over 100 years.
The other day one group of black-hatted Jews were in the Ashkenazi grounds davening and singing, accompanied by a klezmer clarinetist. The notes floated beyond the cemetery walls like a Chagall painting.
It was early evening by the time they left and as if to mark the re-instatement of banality our cat defecated in the vegetable patch of our back garden. I went to the front to get a trowel to scoop it and so it was just sheer luck that at that moment a people carrier stopped outside the house.
Out climbed seven Chasids. The biggest in the group, a barrel-shaped, fair-haired fellow who seemed both twice my height and width, asked if it might be possible to see the cemetery behind our house. I said it might, but there is no access to the grounds and anyway that cemetery is Sephardi. If it’s the Ashkenazi one you’re after, I said, you’re better off driving around the block to the entrance.
“You Jewish”, he replied, half asking, half saying. He would still like to see the cemetery at the back, he added. I gestured for him to follow. It was only halfway through my living room that I realised his entire entourage were in tow. I will not attempt to describe the expression of a woman whose partner leaves for a trowel and returns with seven Chasidim.
We offered a small ladder which Claire suggested might be safer to use one at a time after three attempted to climb it simultaneously. The first few to get a look waited with me near the back door while the others took their turn on the ladder.
“So you Ashkenazi or Sephardi?” asked one. “Both,” I said. “That’s why you’re in the middle,” he quipped, gesturing at the two cemeteries. He had the timing of seasoned comic and despite his greying peyot could not have been more than 40.
“It was lucky we found you,” he said. I agreed, thinking of the cat.
“If we hadn’t I wouldn’t have minded,” he added with a philosophical air. “I’m the type who when he runs for a bus and misses it, thinks, ‘I’m five minutes early for the next one.’”
“An optimist”, I said, and we chuckled, nodding sagely.
“I’ll pray for you,” he said, and then in deadpan beat added, “it won’t do any good.”
I rather miss him.